The Things We Don’t See

The things that don’t happen are important to understand. Disease outbreaks that don’t become pandemics, are important. So too are workplace injuries that don’t happen, and children not becoming malnourished. The wars that never start are important too. Disease, injuries, malnourishment and war are all influenced by human choices. Given this, it is fairly safe to say that our actions have just as much influence over whether these things don’t happen as well.

Yet it is much easier to talk about the terrible work place accidents, pandemics, famine and war, than it is to talk about their prevention. And to an extent, this isn’t surprising. After all, you can take a photograph of something that happens. You can probably measure it fairly easily. It makes it into the news. But ease doesn’t necessarily correlate with importance.

Of course, it is harder to examine what hasn’t happened. But to quote Robert McNamara, “The challenge is to make the important measurable, not the measurable important”. The irony that he was the US secretary of defence is not lost on me, but he makes a good point.

Things aren’t important because we are able to measure them, or measure them easily, and the decision to devalue those things that are harder to understand is only a decision to lessen our own knowledge.

Which leads me to the wars that never were. Why don’t we talk about them? Yes, you can never say with absolute certainty that ‘if x didn’t occur, then we would have had a war’, but prevention is a broader idea than prediction is, and we know enough about conflict risk-factors to be able to have a decent understanding of situations that could have turned violent.

What’s more, we do pay attention to this sort of prevention in other areas. For example, the measles vaccine prevents outbreaks of measles. In communities where there is a wide uptake of the measles vaccine, we fairly confidently talk about measles being prevented. Of course, we could never say when a measles outbreak might have occurred if there had been low vaccination rates, but in this context, we understand prevention to be more than prediction. We understand this so well, that we proactively respond to dropping vaccination rates, seeing that they could undo our successful work of not having measles.

Why not do this with peace too?

For example, what about the recent electoral crisis in Samoa? Despite enormous and protracted political and electoral tensions, Samoa did not descend into violence. Clearly lots of things were going right. Or what about Botswana? When they gained independence from the British, they were one of the poorest nations in Africa, with very little infrastructure, multiple linguistic and ethnic groups, an extraordinarily hostile apartheid South African for one neighbour, and combinations of economic collapse and war in other neighbours, resulting in large migrations. In short, they had lots of conflict risk-factors— yet they didn’t go to war. This seems remarkable. Botswana clearly did lots of things right.

So why don’t we talk about these successes, or try to understand them? I feel certain that, if Botswana or Samoa had descended into violent-conflict, then there would be plenty of people who wanted to talk about it, find out ‘what went wrong’ and ‘how it could have been prevented’. There would also be plenty of peace work projects that wanted to focus on healing, and how this violence could be prevented from occurring in the future. Of course, all this work is important work, but it is surely only half the picture.

If we can take the prevention of disease, workplace accidents, and famine seriously, then why do we not take the prevention of war seriously too?

Because we don’t take war prevention seriously, we don’t talk about it and we don’t understand what successful prevention might look like. And so if war starts, we are easily lulled into believing that it was ‘inevitable’, and consequently, we do not hold war to account.

We do not question our governments about how their inactions allowed this war to start, or how their actions make it more likely. Our journalists do not put tough questions to our politicians, business and cultural leaders, to demand answers as to how this was allowed to occur. We do not start investigations, to help guide our efforts to never again repeat this mistake. In short, our lack of outrage when war occurs, suggests an ignorance about how it could have been averted.

And not only this, but we do not respond to the growth of conflict risk-factors with the sense of urgency and importance that we ought to. Often, we do not even recognise that addressing conflict risk-factors early is an essential part of conflict prevention. We do not recognise peace work, until the violence has started. Yet this kind of preventative peace work (proactive peace work) is just as important for preventing violence, as addressing health risk-factors is for preventing disease. If we see peace work as only starting after violence starts, then peace will be forever chasing its tail.

So, we need to understand that war prevention exists. We must have a clear enough picture of it in our minds to expect war prevention to occur. We must be outraged when it doesn’t and we must see the urgency behind addressing conflict risk-factors.

Only when this is the case, could we consider war prevention to be taken seriously.

In short, the things we don’t see are important. The things that don’t happen are important. And we have just as much control over the things that don’t happen, as we have over the things that do. My work on Proactive Peace will help to highlight this important prevention work, that is occurring every day.

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